By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Dec 16
On Thursday, in Washington DC, a law relating to the US-India defence partnership cleared its final legislative hurdle. When President Barack Obama signs it next week, his presidential successors and their administrations will be legally bound to treat India as a “major defence partner”.
Titled, “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, the India-related section is embedded as an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA), an annual bill that allocates funding to the US military.
Last night, the US Congress’ upper house, the Senate, voted 92-7 to pass NDAA 2017. Last week the lower house, the House of Representatives, had passed the bill with a majority of 375-34. With such overwhelming Congressional support, the US president is not empowered to veto the bill.
The legislation is based on Washington’s belief that India is strategically vital to America in Asia’s security architecture. It sets the stage for easier Indian access to US high technology.
“The designation as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ is a status unique to India and institutionalizes the progress made to facilitate defense trade and technology sharing with India to a level at par with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners, and ensures enduring cooperation into the future”, said a joint statement from US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar after they met in New Delhi on Thursday.
Senator Mark Warner, who drafted the India amendment that the Senate passed, declared today: “I welcome the continued advancement of our bilateral defense relationship with India, as evidenced by the establishment of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), the signing of the Defence Framework Agreement, the completion of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the designation of India as a major defence partner”.
Congressman George Holding, who steered the India amendment through the House of Representatives, pointed out: “India plays a critical role as a strategic partner to the US and as a pillar of stability in South Asia. I’m proud to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to solidify the economic and defence relationship between our countries.”
For American defence corporations, which have already benefited from $15 billion worth of arms sales to India, the bill provides opportunities for greater volumes of business. Says Ben Schwartz of the US-India Business Council, which represents numerous top-tier US companies doing defence business with India: “We want the Indian military to be capable of managing the growing security threats in the Indian Ocean region. And we want many of those capabilities to come from American industry and US-India industrial partnerships.”
The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDAA, requires the US secretaries of defense and state to designate an official with the specific task of clearing roadblocks to greater cooperation. In the Obama administration, this function was earlier performed by Ashton Carter himself, as co-chairman of the DTTI, and is currently being performed by Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L).
An early indication of how seriously President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration will pursue defence cooperation with India would be available from how expeditiously Kendall’s replacement is appointed, and how senior the official will be, observes an Indian defence ministry official.
US officials predict that India will be important for Trump’s administration, but not a problem to be handled on urgent priority, at least initially. With relatively little mind space for India, the relationship would initially require to be nudged along by the defence industry.
Even so, the administration will be bound by the “reporting” clause in the India amendment, which requires an official to report within six months to Congress on progress in the US-India defence relationship.
It also remains to be seen how New Delhi reacts to the “operational” clauses of the India amendment, which requires the US administration to coordinate with their Indian counterparts on “engagement between the militaries of the two countries for threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, mutual security interests, logistical support, intelligence, tactics, techniques and procedures, humanitarian aid and disaster relief.”
Indian governments, including the current one, have been careful to dispel any impression that New Delhi is in a military alliance with Washington.